Over on my tumblr, someone asked me if I had any tips for fighting self-doubt when you first start writing/submitting/getting rejections. My answer ended up being pretty long, so I thought I'd cross post for the LJ crowd.***
I have a few tricks for battling self-doubt, depending on what the exact situation/problem is. As always, other people’s mileage may vary.Situation
: I’m writing a book, and I’m not sure that it’s any good. Woe, I say. Woe. My Trick
: In the words of my good friend Ally Carter, “The first draft doesn’t have to be right. It just has to be written.” At this point in the process, I focus on FINISHING the book, and I say to my doubts “Come bug me when this draft is done, and then we’ll talk.”
Maybe what I’m writing really does suck. Maybe I won’t ever publish this book. Maybe I will finish it and PUT IT IN A DRAWER AND NEVER LOOK AT IT AGAIN. But maybe, after I’m finished, I’ll realize that some of my negative feelings were feelings about the process (WRITING IS HARD) and not about the words on the page. Or maybe, once I finish the book, I can put aside for a little while, then look at it with fresh eyes and figure out how to make it better. I can have someone I trust look at it with a critical eye. I can tear it apart and sew it back together again.
But first, it has to be written.*
* This is my process. It’s not everyone’s. Part of being a writer is learning what works for you!Situation
: The book is done. It’s revised. I have done everything I possibly can, put every ounce of blood, sweat, and tears I have into it…but a little voice in the back of my head whispers “what if it’s still not good?”
What if…(gulp)…I’m just not that good of a writer?My trick
: I think there are good questions to ask yourself and bad questions to ask yourself. I think “What kinds of books am I best at writing?” and “What are my strengths and weaknesses?” and “How can I improve?” are all good questions. But personally, I find “is this good?” a whole lot less useful than “is this as good as I can possibly make it?”
Maybe the book is good and maybe it’s not, but if it’s as good as I can make it, I move on to the next project, because objectively, there are four possibilities at this point:
1. It is as good as I can make it, but it’s still not good.
2. It is as good as I can make it, and it is good.
3. It is not as good as I can make it, and it is not good.
4. It is not as good as I can make it, but it is still good.
If you’re in situations 3 or 4, then whether or not it’s “good,” all you as a writer need to be focusing on is making it better, because why would you want to do something that’s not your best? And if you’re in situations 1 or 2, then whether or not it’s good, there’s nothing you can really do about it, because it’s already as good as you can make it. If your book is written and revised to the absolute best of your current ability, and it’s still not good, then your only options are (a) give up and throw in the towel on writing altogether, or (b) move on to write another book, improving as a writer in the process.
I thought about this a lot when I was working toward publication, and I decided there just wasn’t any utility in wondering if I was a good writer. At the end of the day, no matter how good I was (or was not) at writing, sitting around and pondering that question wasn’t going to make me any better. Starting the next book, challenging myself, focusing on the craft, and trying to improve would.
So my second trick is that once a book is as good as I can possibly make it, I let it go and move on.
And then I start writing the next book.Situation
: The book is out there in the world. People are reading it. They are reviewing it! And some of them hate it! What if they’re right? What if it isn’t any good?Trick
: This is one of those times when I find the slow-moving nature of the publishing industry to be a good thing. By the time a book comes out, I’m already knee-deep in the next one. As a writer, I learn by writing. By reading. By challenging myself and thinking about story. By revising. So by the time a book comes out, if things are on track, I am already a better writer than I was when I wrote it
. If I sat down to write that exact same book
today, I’d do a better job at it. I have learned so much since then! Hind-sight is 20/20! That book I loved and pushed myself on and MADE THE VERY BEST I COULD has flaws
But…I know I did the best I could at the time I wrote the book. I gave it everything I had, and flaws and all, that’s something worth being proud of. And knowing I could do it better now? Realizing that there are things in the book that I would change? That means I am learning. I am improving and growing and concentrating on the future. And that’s a good thing.
(Side note: I know the question was about self-doubt prior to publishing, but I thought it might be worth pointing out that it’s something published authors feel, too. The things that help me now are the same things that helped me when I was getting rejections left and right.)Situation
: No, seriously. ”Write the next book” isn’t a panacea. So what if you’re trying and getting better and all that…what if you still aren’t that good, Jen? What if, no matter how hard you try, you will NEVER BE GOOD
? *existential malaise*My Trick
: Now we’re not talking about doubts or worries about a book, or even a group of books. This is something bigger, and it can be overwhelming.
So this is what I do.
I remind myself that writing is something I do. It is not the sum total of who I am. I am a writer, but I am also a sister and a daughter and a friend and a scientist and a million other things. I am smart and I am nice and I am loved. And if it turns out that writing makes me miserable, if there ever comes a day when the misery of doubt outweighs the joy of writing…
I don’t have to do it anymore.
I think it’s important in life to do things that make you happy, to find joy wherever you can take it. I love writing, but if I decided not to publish anymore, I’d still be me. So my best advice if you’re feeling this kind of doubt is to build a life for yourself outside of writing, and if you reach the point where writing-doubts are screaming in your brain and won’t stop, get out of the house. Get away from the computer screen. Do something nice for someone you love. And remind yourself that you are more than words on a page.